Japan rushes to repair pumps to stop radiation leaks
Tokyo, March 19, 2011
Exhausted engineers scrambled on Saturday to connect Japan's crippled reactors to a new power cable in a desperate attempt to get water pumps going that would cool down overheated fuel rods and prevent the deadly spread of radiation.
Hopes were dashed of miracle survivors when it turned out that a story was wrong that a young man had being pulled alive from the rubble eight days after the quake and tsunami ripped through northeast Japan, triggering the nuclear crisis.
It said he had been in an evacuation centre and had just returned to his ruined home, where he lay down in a blanket.
Beleaguered Prime Minister Naoto Kan sounded out the opposition, which only hours before the quake struck had been trying to oust him from office, about establishing a government of national unity to deal with a crisis that has shattered Japan and sent a shock through global financial markets, with major economies joining forces to calm the Japanese yen.
It has also stirred unhappy memories of Japan's past nuclear nightmare -- the US atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Japan is the only country to have been hit by an atomic bomb.
Further cabling was under way before an attempt to restart water pumps needed to cool overheated nuclear fuel rods at the six-reactor Fukushima plant in northeastern Japan, 240 km (150 miles) north of Tokyo.
Officials expect to have power from outside drawn to No. 2 reactor first. Then they will test the pump and systems to see if they can be started.
Working inside a 20 km (12 miles) evacuation zone at Fukushima, nearly 300 engineers got a second diesel generator attached to No. 6 working just after 4 a.m., the nuclear safety agency said. They then used that power to restart cooling pumps on No. 5. Reactor No. 6 is drawing power from a second diesel generator.
'Tepco has connected the external transmission line with the receiving point of the plant and confirmed that electricity can be supplied,' the plant's operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co , said in a statement.
Another 1,480 metres (5,000 feet) of cable are being laid before engineers try to crank up the coolers at reactor No.2, followed by numbers 1, 3 and 4 this weekend, company officials said.
'If they are successful in getting the cooling infrastructure up and running, that will be a significant step forward in establishing stability,' said Eric Moore, a nuclear power expert at US-based FocalPoint Consulting Group.
If that fails, one option under consideration is to bury the sprawling 40-year-old plant in sand and concrete to prevent a catastrophic radiation release. That method was used to seal huge leakages from the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, the world's worst nuclear reactor disaster.
Underlining authorities' desperation, fire trucks sprayed water overnight in a crude tactic to cool reactor No.3, considered the most critical because of its use of mixed oxides, or mox, containing both uranium and highly toxic plutonium.
'I humbly apologise to the public for causing such trouble. Although it was due to natural disaster, I am extremely regretful,' the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper quoted Tepco CEO Masataka Shimizu as saying in a statement.
Japan has raised the severity rating of the nuclear crisis to level 5 from 4 on the seven-level INES international scale, putting it on a par with the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, although some experts say it is more serious. Chernobyl, in Ukraine, was a 7 on that scale.
The operation to avert large-scale radiation has overshadowed the humanitarian aftermath of the 9.0-magnitude quake and 10-metre (33-foot) tsunami that struck on March 11.
Nearly 7,000 people have been confirmed killed in the double natural disaster, which turned whole towns into waterlogged and debris-shrouded wastelands. Another 10,700 people are missing with many feared dead.
Some 390,000 people, including many among Japan's ageing population, are homeless and battling near-freezing temperatures in shelters in northeastern coastal areas.
Food, water, medicine and heating fuel are in short supply and a Worm Moon, when the full moon is at its closest to Earth, may bring floods to devastated areas where the geography has changed.
'Everything is gone, including money,' said Tsukasa Sato, a 74-year-old barber with a heart condition, as he warmed his hands in front of a stove at a shelter for the homeless.
Health officials and the U.N. atomic watchdog have said radiation levels in the capital Tokyo were not harmful. But the city has seen an exodus of tourists, expatriates and many Japanese, who fear a blast of radioactive material.
'I'm leaving because my parents are terrified. I personally think this will turn out to be the biggest paper tiger the world has ever seen,' said Luke Ridley, 23, from London as he sat at Narita international airport using his laptop.
All Japanese prefectures have begun radiation monitoring. The highest reading outside Fukushima came from Mito to the south. That was 1,726 microsieverts per annum.
By comparison, the global average from natural sources is 2,400. Officials asked people in the 20 km 'take cover' zone to follow some directives when going outside: Drive, don't walk. Wear a mask. Wear long sleeves. Don't go out in the rain.
Though there has been alarm around the world, experts have been warning there is little risk of radiation at dangerous levels spreading to other nations.
The US government said 'minuscule' amounts of radiation were detected in California consistent with a release from Japan's damaged facility, but there were no levels of concern.
Amid their distress, Japanese were proud of the 279 nuclear plant workers toiling in the wreckage, wearing masks, goggles and protective suits sealed by duct tape.
'My eyes well with tears at the thought of the work they are doing,' Kazuya Aoki, a safety official at Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, told Reuters. – Reuters